Mission & Objectives
Scientists & Crew
This spring, join Expedition 8 of Dive and
Discover as researchers diving in the submersible Alvin explore hydrothermal vents
off the Pacific Northwest coast. During the 17-day expedition
to the Juan de Fuca Ridge, 200 miles west of Washington state,
scientists and engineers will deploy new ocean instruments and
gather samples of fluids and organisms from the vents to learn
how microbes live
in this high-pressure, super-heated environment.
Scientists will focus their research on
hydrothermal vents at the Mothra and Main Endeavour Fields,
more than a mile beneath the ocean surface. Last year, scientists
identified a heat-loving microbe from the Mothra Field that
thrived at 250 degrees Fahrenheit (121°C), a temperature
that no other life form is known to tolerate.
These microscopic creatures may be similar
to the earliest forms of life on Earth, which also tolerated high
fluid temperatures, little oxygen, and used iron for metabolism.
Finding microbes that can survive such extremes increases the possibility
of life existing on other planets or elsewhere in the universe.
The research is part of a new study to develop sensors that are capable of measuring
and recording chemical, biological, and physical processes directly within deep-sea
vents. This will help scientists study the extreme conditions under which they
live and how the microbes' habitat changes over time.
Researchers will also clean up the Main Endeavour Field, part of a marine protected
area in Canada. During the last 10 to 15 years, tether lines, markers, and other
materials used for navigation and for transport of deep-sea equipment have been
left at the site. Divers in Alvin will remove these objects to make maneuvering
in the field and the deployment of experiments easier for pilots and scientists
in the submersible.
Funding for this research comes from the W.M. Keck Foundation and the National
Science Foundation's Ridge 2000 Program. Scientists, engineers, and students
from the University of Washington and the University of Massachusetts, as well
as the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Monterey Bay Aquarium Research
Institute, and the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration's Pacific
Marine Environmental Laboratory will be on board the research vessel Atlantis, operated by
the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
Researchers on Expedition 8 will travel to
a long, narrow undersea volcano known as the Endeavour Segment.
This unusual volcano is just over 650 feet (200 meters) in
height, but its width extends nearly two and one-half miles
(4 km) and its length stretches nearly nine miles (15 km).
It is part of the Juan de Fuca Ridge, the mid-ocean
ridge in the northeast Pacific Ocean located about 200
miles west of Seattle.
area of this volcano contains five of the planet's most active hydrothermal vent
fields, places where water seeps through cracks in the seafloor
and is heated as high as 716°F (380°C) by hot rock deep
below the ocean crust.
Last summer, scientists from the University of Washington (UW) and the Monterey
Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) placed instruments called microbial incubators
inside the walls of three black
smoker chimneys in the Mothra and Main Endeavour vent fields, two
of the five vent fields along the Endeavour Segment. Sensors within the instruments
have measured temperature every 20 minutes during their year-long deployment,
collecting about 700,000 temperature measurements.
live inside the chimneys are also growing within these incubators. During Expedition
8, researchers diving in the submersible Alvin will
recover the instruments and the microbes inside.
"We are excited, but also a bit nervous about getting the instruments back," says
Deb Kelley, a University of Washington researcher and the chief scientist on
the expedition. "They are the first instruments of their kind, and this will
be their first long-term test within these extreme environments."
Answering big questions
Investigating the high temperatures that support microorganisms thriving in super-heated,
seafloor environments helps researchers to answer big questions about life on
Earth. Their work will aid in determining how microorganisms can live beneath
the ocean floor, for understanding how and where life might have began and evolved
on the planet, and will help to explore the possibility of similar life forms
surviving with little oxygen in extreme environments on other planets in the
Last year, scientists studying black smoker chimneys collected from the Mothra
vent field identified microorganisms growing at the highest temperature known
to maintain life on Earth: 250°F (121°C).
"We believe that organisms can grow at much higher temperatures," says Kelley. "On
this expedition, we want to begin to test this hypothesis."
Once divers in Alvin retrieve the instruments,
researchers onboard the support ship RV Atlantis will
continue to grow the microorganisms to determine how they live in various temperatures
and pressures, and to study the gases and organic compounds they tolerate. Researchers
will also examine their genetic makeup, metabolic processes, and what they eat
to survive. At least one incubator will be redeployed back into the chimney walls
so that researchers can investigate how long it takes microbes to colonize. They
want to find out which of the organisms are the first to grow.
Earthquakes, maps, and cleaning up
In addition to investigating life within the chimney walls, scientists will take
water samples from black smokers in at least three vent fields to see how the
chemistry of the fluids and gases have changed since a series of undersea earthquakes shook
the area in 1999. Using a special water sampler, they will take fluid samples
from both high- and low-temperature vents. Scientists hope that these samples
will help them understand how changes in fluid chemistry may influence changes
in the microbial communities over time.
To help scientists visualize the topography, or bathymetry,
of the seafloor around the vents, a sonar system on Alvin will be used
to make a very detailed map of the surface of the seafloor. Like a road map,
the image will reveal the location of faults, fissures, and vents within the
vent fields to help scientists understand how the hydrothermal system formed.
A few Alvin dives will be spent cleaning up the Main Endeavour vent field.
This region, located in Canadian waters, is part of a marine protected area,
similar to an underwater national park. During nearly three decades of research
at this site, tether lines, markers, and other materials have been left on the
seafloor. Removing these will make future experiments and navigation in Alvin easier,
and will keep the area free of debris left by humans.